President Obama's State of the Union address this past January highlighted the value of investing in early childhood education. He noted that "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than 7 dollars later on." Putting words in to action, Obama's budget proposes USD 75 Billion over the next 10 years to fund pre-school programming.
Research and evidence from established programs continually prove that investing in children ages 0 to 5, is an investment in society that pays high dividends. Nobel Laureate Economist Professor James Heckman's "Giving Kids A Fair Chance" discusses the "accident of birth" for children born into economic and social disadvantage. Professor Heckman urges the focus of social policy and resources toward early childhood interventions both cognitive and non-cognitive. By focusing on and improving early childhood education society benefits from less violent crime, reduced teen pregnancy rates, improved math and reading skills, better social intelligence, and of course, increased graduation rates. These are all desirable and a significant indicator of a society's health and wealth.
However, increased government funding is only first the step.
Challenges to effective early childhood education
Talent and support: The quality and the availability of pre-school teachers is obviously a key factor to achieving success. We must remember that pre-school teachers are the first educators in a young person's life. They help young children develop key social intelligence skills that will be crucial to success later on in life. Therefore recruiting, training, evaluation and continuing professional education and support are critical.
Programming: Early childhood education programming that is independent of the requirements to enter kindergarten would be counterproductive. A coordinated approach linking K-12 educational programming with a focus on quality and continuity is absolutely essential for early childhood education programs to be successful.
Bias and misperception: The parents of socially disadvantaged children are more likely to perceive pre-school as a better organized babysitting. Helping parents to understand the importance of a supportive and structured play and learning environment for 0 to 5 year olds is no small task. The tradeoffs and complications of effective programming will differ for disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged setting. Perhaps it requires differentiated or nuanced approaches designed to meet the challenges of the disadvantaged and more advantaged social backgrounds.
Policy and awareness: Lack of awareness for the development period of 0 to 5 years old orphans a critical stage of childhood development. Education policy often focuses exclusively on K-12, higher education, and skills training. While success in these endeavours is necessary for an educated, functional, and socially advanced population, investments in education are made more effective when pre-school aged children are surrounded by a supportive and learning environment before they even get to kindergarten.
Where will progress come from?
Despite 75 Billion over 10 years, creating, designing and implementing quality early childhood education programming is expensive. Beyond government funding, where will this critically needed capital come from? How can private investors and capital be enticed to investments in this area despite delayed returns? Are there alternative models out there to help attract substantial investment and a long-term commitment to ECE? What are the best practices globally and how can the policy and funding environments both in the U.S. and around the world be optimized for success in this area?
At Zero5, we believe the time is right -- and overdue -- to have structured and ongoing dialogue bringing all the stakeholders together to address these questions. Through our work convening the relevant players, we will be looking at potential funding models, exploring partnership opportunities that join and leverage public and private sector involvement, and perhaps most importantly, we will draw much-needed attention at a high level to this critical aspect of ECE. Producing excellent research and planning effective programming for children is only possible if the long-term funding is available. Creating an international discourse on early childhood education and its critical role in the health and success of a functional society will address finally this long underserved/ignored educational development phase.
This piece was co-authored with Lena Hagelstein Dente. Lena is a Director at Zero5 which is a Switzerland based NGO focused on early childhood education. She received her master's degree from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and is also alumnae of a Robert Bosch Foundation's Fellowship Program for Young American Leader as well as the World Economic Forum's Global Leadership Fellow program.